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A Gender-Swapped Equalizer Stages a TV Comeback

Queen Latifah headlines CBS's remake of the '80s vigilante drama. Does it multiply the thrills of the original?
  • Queen Latifah is The Equalizer. (Photo: Barbara Nitke / CBS)
    Queen Latifah is The Equalizer. (Photo: Barbara Nitke / CBS)

    From 1985-1989, a fictional vigilante promoted his services via an understated classified ad in the newspaper: "Got a problem? Odds against you? Call the Equalizer: 212 555 4200." The late Edward Woodward played the title character, aka Robert McCall, keeping himself busy after his retirement from the intelligence field by settling scores — for free — on behalf of his desperate clients. It's a premise so durable that not only has it been turned into a feature film franchise starring Denzel Washington as a new Robert McCall, it's also about to be a TV series again — one that CBS clearly has high hopes for, since it's giving the show this year's plum post-Super Bowl timeslot.

    As in the original, our setting is New York. This time, the retiring intelligence agent is Robyn McCall (Queen Latifah) — still troubled by nightmares of an op that went badly wrong, and not entirely comfortable relating to her teen daughter Delilah (Laya DeLeon Hayes) after spending so much time away from home. McCall is on the Coney Island boardwalk, having just declined an overture from her old agency colleague Bishop (Chris Noth, truly never foxier) either to reconsider her retirement from the Agency or to come work for him in private security, when she sees a teen girl and a sketchy guy sneaking in to the Wonder Wheel amusement park, and follows them. Her instincts are sound: Jewel (Lorna Courtney) witnessed a crime for which she was subsequently framed and really needs help. McCall reaches out to her former associates — sharpshooter Melody (Liza Lapira), hacker Harry (Adam Goldberg), and Bishop, among others — to figure out why Jewel is being targeted, and by whom. And what do you know: she's so good at it that by the end of the pilot, she's figured out this is what she wants to do with all her free time.

    TV networks have a challenge at this point in history: after a lifetime of conditioning, viewers are still entertained and/or soothed by the rhythms of a procedural drama. But if their consciousness regarding the inequities inherent in the legal system has been lately raised, tuning in to a traditional cop show may be less diverting if it feels like they can see through the image to the copaganda coding behind it. One workaround is a return to legal dramas that center the heroic work of defense attorneys, like Perry Mason, For Life, and The Good Fight. Another is to put law enforcement in the background and just careen from one horrific emergency to the next; this has been a very successful model for the 9-1-1 franchise. Private investigators have also been TV mainstays: they get to do all the same crime-solving stuff TV cops generally do, but without the cop baggage; it's in this last category that The Equalizer belongs. Co-creators Andrew W. Marlowe and Terri Edda Miller already trod this ground in their last project, the one-season-and-done 2018 ABC series Take Two. That show's premise was a little lighter — its lead characters were a PI and an actor who'd played a cop on TV — whereas this pilot establishes that, after a youthful indiscretion, McCall was encouraged, in lieu of serving time, to join the army, from which she was recruited to the CIA. The original Equalizer frequently showed Robert McCall grappling with his guilt over the morally dubious work he did for the (never-named) agency that had formerly employed him; since this series has established that Robyn McCall worked for the CIA, I hope it will do likewise, pushing its audience past a healthy suspicion of cops and into a healthy suspicion of U.S. imperialism.

    In any case,The Equalizer is undeniably fun to watch. The pilot alone requires McCall to pose as a public defender and a billionaire's driver, and to speed Jewel away from danger on a getaway motorcycle, and if you've watched Queen Latifah in previous roles, you know she has the range to do all of that and more; the chance to put her in a variety of guises has to be intoxicating to the Equalizer writers' room. Her band of roguish smarties are perfectly cast individually, even if I don't quite buy Lapira and Goldberg as a married couple. (Maybe if he cut his hair.)

    Lorraine Toussaint is wasted in the pilot as McCall's Aunt Fry, apparently consigned to the home; I'd love to set up a drinks date for her and Christine Lahti (currently playing a grandmother on Evil), because they would probably have a lot to discuss about their considerable talents being squandered in CBS procedurals. Here's hoping McCall finds a way to pull Aunt Fry in on her righteous schemes as the series goes on, or I don't know why Toussaint would bother showing up for her call time. Despite that, and although the pilot is formulaic in the extreme, it's a formula that works, and the results are interesting. If nothing else, Queen Latifah's natural magnetism hooked me long enough to want to see her help at least two or three more of New York's lost souls.

    The Equalizer debuts on CBS February 7th after the Super Bowl.

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    Writer, editor, and snack enthusiast Tara Ariano is the co-founder of Television Without Pity and Fametracker (RIP). She co-hosts the podcasts Extra Hot Great and Again With This (a compulsively detailed episode-by-episode breakdown of Beverly Hills, 90210), and has contributed to New York, the New York Times magazine, Vulture, Decider, Salon, and Slate, among many others. She lives in Austin.

    TOPICS: The Equalizer (2021 series), CBS, Adam Goldberg, Chris Noth, Liza Lapira, Queen Latifah